Debating Abortion, Part III

Okay – now that I have some time, allow me to continue the argument begun in part II by discussing Maddox’s second and third criteria for sentience:


Picard has a pretty easy time demonstrating that Data is self-aware; all he has to do is ask the android a few questions and let Data’s eloquent responses speak for themselves. But what do you do with a pre-verbal infant — or an emergent talker? Again, a little creativity is required.

One common test of self-awareness is the mirror test. Smear a little make-up on a little kid’s nose and then put him in front of a mirror. Does he try to rub off the rouge? Researchers have found in repeated trials that children generally don’t react to the make-up until about the middle of the second year of life. This doesn’t mean, of course, that infants are completely without self-awareness; researchers have also found, for example, that a days-old baby is more likely to display the rooting reflex when another person touches him on the cheek than when he accidentally touches his own cheek, which suggests that even a newborn can tell the difference between his own body and the environment. Still, the fact that babies fail the mirror test indicates that self-awareness, like intelligence, evolves over time.

In the literature I’ve come across, several stages of self-awareness are recognized. First, there is self-environment differentiation, which is present to some extent at birth but becomes more and more sophisticated throughout the first year. Secondly, there is the development of one’s “body schema” – in other words, an internal map of one’s body – which is demonstrated by those children who pass the afore-described mirror test (18 months seems to be the age at which most researchers observe this ability in toddlers). Third, young children eventually come to recognize themselves at different points in time; in other words, they develop an enduring sense of self. This does not occur until a child is around three or four years of age.

Lastly – and perhaps most importantly of all – young children must learn to understand how others see them. The ability to lie, the ability to understand the actions of characters in story books, the ability to understand why another child may be upset — all of these depend upon the ability to separate one’s own mind from the minds of others (called “theory of mind” in many developmental psychology texts). A workable theory of mind is usually developed during the preschool years, but there are some adult autists walking around today who are still profoundly impaired when it comes to understanding the thoughts, motives, and emotions of others. Are these autists less than human?

After surveying all the information I have on self-awareness, I can only ask pro-abortion activists one question: If self-awareness is going to be our criterion for personhood, precisely where should we draw the line? Even if we declare an individual a self-aware “person” once he’s passed the mirror test, we still run into problems. Some animals can pass the mirror test, after all; should we protect dolphins and large apes and not protect human babies who are younger than the 18 month cut-off? Unless you’re a radical animal rights proponent (like Peter Singer), you should be appalled at the very suggestion.


I’ll be brief with this one, as I feel like I’m repeating myself.

Consciousness, like the previous two criteria, is quite variable. When we sleep, for example, we are largely unconscious. There are also many periods throughout our waking lives in which we are not completely “with it”. Have you ever made a decision to go to the grocery store, but found yourself heading into work instead a few minutes into your drive? In my family, we call that “automatic pilot,” and it appears to be a pretty universal phenomenon among human beings.

In order for “consciousness” (or “intelligence” or “self-awareness”) to serve as a criterion for “personhood,” it has to be clearly defined. And who’s going to do the defining? The powerful. And that’s pretty much the core problem with any definition of “personhood” offered up by the pro-abortion movement. G.K. Chesterton once argued that in order for a society to be truly democratic, it must take seriously the conclusions of previous generations. “Tradition,” he wrote, “means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” I would extend the inimitable Mr. Chesterton’s sentiment this way: The anti-abortion movement not only respects the opinions of our ancestors, but also gives a voice to those who are not yet born. Anti-abortion activists refuse to submit to the elitist oligarchs who self-servingly draw up definitions of “personhood” that favor only those who can speak for themselves.

I think I’ll also echo Louvois here and say that what pro-abortion activists are really questioning is whether an unborn baby has a soul. That’s something we’ll never really know for sure. But this doubt should be a reason to err on the side of life, not death.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s